At North Columbus Mall, Somali Women Run The Show

Jun 2, 2016

Columbus has the second-largest Somali community in the country, with more than 45,000 people. Many of them are small business owners, and a majority of the entrepreneurs are women.

The Banadir Mall on Cleveland Avenue is a small, two-story stucco building. Outside it looks like your typical strip-mall. Inside the space is packed with dozens of tiny stores. Narrow aisles weave around to a Halal grocer, an office for immigration services, and a couple barber shops. But the overwhelming majority of stores here are selling clothes, the traditional hijabs and long abaya dresses.

And they’re all owned and operated by women.

WOSU student reporter Khalid Moalim is Somali-American. He says Banadir is where many people—mostly other Somalis--come to get food and products they can’t kind find anywhere else.

Imagine the Somali version of Chinatown.

“Banadir is where families might shop on the weekends or go to hang out," Khalid says.

When Khalid moved to Columbus a few years ago, he came to Banadir and found something unexpected.

“I noticed that the majority of business owners in Banadir were women. The women are for some reason the business owners and the men are the ones doing the behind-the-scenes work.”

One of those business owners at Banadir is Fadumo Ahmed. The woman in her late 50s sits in her store, surrounded by piles of colorful scarves and golden bottles of imported perfumes.

Ahmed said she opened her store 15 years ago to support herself and her kids. When she lived in Somalia, her husband ran the business, but in the US she’s in charge.

“[Owning a business] is honorable,” said Ahmed. “I contribute to American society.”

Ahmed said many women like her choose to run a business for the independence; they’d rather work for themselves than take orders from someone else.

Hassan Omar directs the Somali Community Association of Ohio, which helps members of Columbus' Somali community. He says this is relatively new trend in Somali culture.

“Honestly the women become real leaders in Somali community, not just here but during the civil war,” said Omar.

Omar says that when the Somali civil war broke out in the early 90s, most of the men took up arms while women started running their households. That’s led to their increased leadership and visibility within the community.

Omar says there are thousands of Columbus businesses run by Somalis—including Banadir, there are six Somali-focused malls in the city.

Talk to any young Somali, even college graduates, and they’ll all say their goal is to open a business.

There’s even a system called ayuta where entrepreneurs can take turns lending each other start-up capital. Omar says this is how Somalis in Columbus open their businesses since loans from a bank collect interest, which goes against Islamic custom.

But Omar says he and the older generation of Somalis are concerned about the younger generation of Somali-Americans who were in the US. He says some of the young Somalis don’t like shopping at Banadir, or eating at Somali restaurants. And he worries they won’t preserve this culture.

The next generation at Banadir

Najma Mohamed, age 22, and Kowsar Abdille, age 19, are the newest, and youngest, store owners at Banadir Mall.
Credit Esther Honig / WOSU

While some of the younger generation is staying away, others are choosing to set up shop at Banadir.

Najma Mohamed, 22, and her Kowsar Abdille, 19, are opening a new store. They’ve just converted a dusty storage space into a modern storefront. The walls are freshly painted and floors have been refinished.

“People were actually surprised that we did all of this renovating,” said Kowsar. “We did all the floor, we did the paint, we hung the mirrors, and we have a vision for it.”

Both girls are in college. Najma says she wants to be a Senator and Kowsar a teacher. But for now, they've saved money from working part-time jobs to start a business as Henna artists.

“We love makeup and Henna, and that’s always been our passion,” said Kowsar.

It’s also a niche in the market that they’ve decided to capitalize on. Kowsar said in Somali culture, Henna is primarily used in weddings. But she says that’s changing.

“Especially living in America, cultures are always integrating, and I see people get Henna for graduations, for their birthday parties. For prom even,” said Kowsar.

Najma and Kowsar said Henna has become more widely used, and that's something they want to capitalize on.
Credit Esther Honig / WOSU

They already have a strategy for advertising on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. But Najma says they’re also learning the tradition of customer service from the older women at Banadir.

“They’re like a family member, and they keep, like, this close relationship with you as their customer. That’s the biggest thing that I want to incorporate and keep alive here,” said Najma.